THE TWO STAGES OF SCREENWRITING
1. The creation of your story.
2. The telling of your story.
We are only concerned with the creation of your story, for now.
Your story will be organic, meaning everything will be connected; everything will stem from your story idea.
SO, YOU HAVE AN IDEA FOR A SCREENPLAY?
Grab yourself pen and paper and let’s go…
STEP 1: ROUGH premise.
Roughly, what is your story about? (In a short paragraph)
Don’t think, just answer.
THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS
We all have two sides to our brain.
Simply put, our left side is logical-analytical; our right side is creative.
Think of your RIGHT BRAIN as the genius clown that just wants to have fun and create, like a child.
Think of your LEFT BRAIN as the detective who asks interesting and serious questions, and then organises and makes sense of the genius,nonsense, random answers supplied by your right brain.
Throughout this process you will be using both sides of your brain in the creation of your story; for example, your right brain looks for connections, while your left brain considers cause and effect (both essential for plot).
Let’s digress a moment. Have you seen ‘BACK TO THE FUTURE’?
In the story, Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) has a character arc (changes his views on fate, keeps letter Marty gave him) but he is not the arc character, who is?
And who is the protagonist?
Let’s go back to (STEP 1). Look at your answer.
At this stage, abstractions are your enemy.
What I mean by that is if you have answered (STEP 1) with an abstraction you will need to improve it to something concrete (which you will in STEP 2).
Here are a few examples of what I mean by an abstract storyline:
My story is about freedom.
My story is about a man’s search for truth.
My story is about a woman’s quest for redemption.
My story is about discovering inner beauty in a cynical world.
In a nutshell, could you tell me what ‘BACK TO THE FUTURE’ is about?
Write it down as a short sentence.
(You are training your brain to think concisely)
In a nutshell, could you tell me what ‘ROCKY’ is about?
Write it down as a short sentence.
Being specific is what separates the professional from the novice. You can learn how to be specific. You can learn how to be concise.
Back to the future in a nutshell: A teenager goes back in time to 1955.
It’s not about him accidentally bumping into his parents or his mother falling for him or his father getting bullied. That’s all the good stuff, no doubt, but summing up what the film is about—it’s about a kid who goes back in time to 1955. That is what’s called a story spine—it’s the barest bones of your story and everything else would stem from that.
Look at it this way…
TV GUIDE PREMISE
A TV guide sums up a film in as few words as possible.
It usually follows something like this:
Somebody or something
-somebody or something
I’ll give you a few examples:
A shark terrorises a seaside town (JAWS)
An unknown boxer gets a shot at the world title (ROCKY)
A team of thieves attempt to rob a casino vault (OCEANS ELEVEN)
A new inmate refuses to conform in a maximum security prison (SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION)
A child psychologist tries to help a troubled kid (SIXTH SENSE)
A new inmate upsets the status quo in a mental institution (CUCKOOS NEST)
A mathematician tries to crack the enigma code during world war 2 (IMITATION GAME)
A gigantic asteroid is hurtling towards earth (ARMAGEDDON)
A dissenting juror attempts to persuade the other eleven jurors (12 ANGRY MEN)
A lower class artist falls in love with an upper class girl (TITANIC)
STEP 2: TV premise/STORY SPINE.
Imagine your story listed in a TV guide—short, succinct. Get to the point!
Somebody or something
—somebody or something
Don’t be looking for perfection with this TV premise, just get it down.
(If you are stuck between a few versions, write them all down)
STEP 3: Comparison films
Choose 3 films which you think are roughly similar to the story you are going to write.
Write the three films down. (If your idea is so original you think there is nothing like it, then choose 3 films that are sort of like it if you blur your eyes etc.)
If we took a Beatles song and asked a reggae band, a heavy metal band and a Bluegrass band to play it, each version would sound different even though it’s the same song.
Here are some basic film genres:
Most films have a mix of genres:
Romance/ Comedy ‘FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL’
Thriller/ Mystery ‘SHUTTER ISLAND’
Adventure/ Horror ‘APOCALYPTO’
Science fiction/ Western ‘COWBOYS & ALIENS’
Crime-Gangster/ Drama ‘ROAD TO PERDITION’
There are some who get their knickers in a twist about genre, as if it is somehow selling out or unartistic to label your film a certain genre. When young aspiring musicians get into bands and dream, they may not know exactly what music they want to play but they will have a rough idea. Do you really think The Beatles didn't set out to be a Rock and Roll band?
STEP 4: genre
Roughly, what genre is your story? (If you are not sure, take a guess)
STEP 5: Comparison film genre
Look up what genre the 3 films you chose in (STEP 3) are.
If you think the genre can apply to your story add it to the genre(s) you chose in (STEP 4).
The purpose of these steps (and the many more to follow) is to gather information and flesh out your story idea. Don’t judge or criticise your answers. You are making quick, rough decisions and it’s important to give your decision making muscle a work out.
Have an ideas page for your story and anytime something pops in your mind, be it a line of dialogue, a scene description or a ‘what if I…’ type question—anything, don’t judge, just get it down.
My advice is to work on paper during the ‘gathering info’ stage.
Next week we’ll cover the most important step in your story idea.
THE MYTH OF TALENT
It saddens me when I hear so many people say things like ‘I wish I could play piano’; ‘I’d love to be able to write but I just don’t have the talent’; ‘I’d love to be able to sing but I just don’t have the gift’
Of course natural ability exists, but without training and discipline it is worthless; it’s for guys in pubs to bore everyone with what they could’ve been when they were younger.
If there is something you can learn how to do—and providing you want to learn how to do it—you could learn how to do that thing to an OK standard, right?
And if you can learn how to do it to an OK standard, there is no reason you couldn't learn how to do it to an excellent standard, no? So tell me something that you can’t learn how to do?
Don’t listen to people who say things like you either have it or you don’t or anything remotely like that. If you love something enough and are prepared to work hard, you can always find a way.